The enduring fragments of 9/11

In our singularly loud American way of celebrating and reflecting, we're all revving up for this weekend's anniversary of the events of 9/11. As usual, there's a glut of TV programming and pundit navel-gazing. The only thing missing is a mattress sale at Sit 'n Sleep.

We can't help it; humans are hard-wired to organize and wrangle our history. We believe we can make sense of a senseless world if only we can quantify it. Usually, we can't, but we still like to measure time by the interval between wars. Sometimes, we can, by measuring ourselves with a census, which, in the developed world, is usually in 10-year increments.

So here we are, at the 10-year milestone, recalling where we were, how we heard about the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. We all process things in our own way. Mine is remembering tiny, telling moments in the days immediately after 9/11 when we were raw and struggling with how we felt and how we were supposed to feel.

The day after the attacks, I was driving near my house when another driver abruptly pulled out of his driveway directly in front of me. I did not respond as I normally do, with cursing and exasperated hand gesturing. I simply braked, sighed and let him take the lead. At the next intersection, we pulled up to the stop sign abreast of each other. He was turning right, and I was continuing straight ahead.

We turned toward each other. ''I'm sorry,'' he mouthed, offering a penitent look. I nodded, mouthed ''OK,'' and drove off, wondering about the origins of the alien that suddenly inhabited my body.

Most of that week I found myself engaging in odd behavior: not judging witless TV news readers; sending sentimental e-mail to a cousin in New York I hadn't seen in decades; being patient when the cashier at the grocery store seemed to be moving in slow motion.

And when said store had not received its daily allotment of sushi, I was disappointed but uncharacteristically not annoyed at the delivery person's tardiness. I drove a couple blocks to see if the 7-Eleven nearby had received its supply. Normally, one doesn't associate sushi with 7-Eleven, but I happened to know that the same outfit that supplied premier fish to the pricey Wild Oats also supplied it to that modest 7-Eleven.

I asked the cashier, ''Have you received your sushi today?'' The response was a blank expression on his brown, Middle Eastern/South Asian face. I tried again. ''No sushi yet today?'' and got a mumbled, incomprehensible reply. ''Do you speak English?'' I asked, and although neither my question nor its tone was offensive, suddenly I wondered if I had blundered. If I had in no uncertain terms challenged the cashier's right to work at 7-Eleven; to be resident in this country; to be beyond suspicion for any social faux pas; to be anything other than a terrorist sympathizer.

The cashier's colleague, also a dark-skinned foreigner, rushed over. ''Can I help you?'' he asked, worried.

''Hi, have you gotten your sushi delivery yet today?'' I asked, with much more cheer than either the query or the circumstances demanded. Please, please, I hoped he also heard me say in those nine words, I have no problem with you or your colleague working at 7-Eleven. I don't think your religion is godless. I don't blame you for looking sort of like what we think terrorists look like. I just want to buy my lunch.

''No, not yet. Sorry.''

I smiled and said, ''Ok, thanks.''

After the terrorist attacks 10 years ago, we were all hypersensitive for a while. We were all careful for a while. That's what I remember.


More by Ellen Alperstein:
Magic mountain
The uneven playing field of workers' compensation
Horsing around in Del Mar
Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...
Continuing education at the county fair
Previous Native Intelligence story: Solyndra is not a household name...yet

Next Native Intelligence story: 9-11 vs. Pearl Harbor

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